The internet holds the potential to be one of the greatest forces for equality and opportunity in human history.  An unimaginable bounty of knowledge and tools – from free college courses and small business resources to virtual doctor visits – all readily available from the comfort of home to anyone with a broadband connection, a computer, and the digital skills to use them. 

State Rep. Demetrius Douglas

At least, in theory.  

Our reality, of course, is far less egalitarian.  Even where fast broadband service is widely available, black, Hispanic, and low-income Americans are less likely to have a home internet subscription and a home computer – which is a big reason these communities lost the most ground when the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools and jobs to move online. 

The bipartisan infrastructure bill President Joe Biden signed late last year will gift Georgia hundreds of millions of dollars in broadband funding – and an historic opportunity to solve these digital disparities once and for all.  But seizing this opportunity now requires state agencies to make smart choices on how to prioritize these dollars.  We’ll squander this opportunity if we buy into the myth that we can achieve digital equity just by building more broadband network infrastructure.    

Ultimately, closing our digital divide will hinge on educating and empowering the disconnected – not just on stringing fiber cable and 5G cells.  

The president’s infrastructure bill’s $30-a-month Affordable Connectivity Benefit, along with the private sector commitments Biden secured to lower prices for low-income customers, together mean that home internet service is can be obtained for free for any eligible Georgian who opts in.     

But getting all these eligible neighbors opted-in is easier said than done.  Only one in four eligible families have enrolled since the program launched on December 31.  Many just might not be aware this new benefit is available – a relatively straightforward problem we could fix with aggressive marketing and outreach campaigns.  But many more lack the digital skills to be able to connect even if they wanted to.   

Innovative city governments across the country, from Philadelphia to Salt Lake City, have launched Digital Navigator programs as a promising new model for tackling these interlocking barriers.  Georgia should strive to become the first state in the country to scale such an effort statewide.    

The formula is simple:  partner with a network of trusted, on-the-ground community organizations – for example, local non-profits, libraries, or churches – and fund these groups to train teams of Navigators who can get out into the neighborhoods and work one-on-one with unconnected neighbors.    

These navigators can help spread the word about the Affordable Connectivity Benefit (ACB), help residents figure out if they’re eligible, and stand at their elbow to walk them through the sign-up process.  For households without a computer at home, Navigators can help connect them with non-profits or state programs offering free or low-cost options.  And for digital newcomers lost and overwhelmed by the prospect of joining the Information Age, Navigators can offer basic “how-to” guidance and more advanced digital literacy training courses. 

Georgia’s opening salvo against our digital divide – a $400 million dollar bipartisan investment to bring broadband infrastructure to unserved rural communities – is a worthy and necessary starting point.  But we can’t let that be the end of our efforts.  Even as we build networks in rural Georgia, we must build digital fluency and preparedness in our cities and suburbs.    

Spent wisely, Georgia’s federal funding from the Infrastructure Act can make this vision a reality – and finally deliver on the internet’s promise as a Great Equalizer.  Let’s not waste this opportunity. 

Rep. Demetrius Douglas, D-Stockbridge, represents District 78 in the House of Representatives

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